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For such short phrase, ‘no comment’ is one which is certainly loaded with meaning.
In fact, it is hard to think of two more damaging words which a spokesperson could utter in a media interview.
The audience will assume there is some form of guilt, or at the very least that the spokesperson has something they wish to hide, while the journalist will ramp up the pressure and probe further, confident they are on to a bigger and better story.
By effectively saying nothing you are sending a powerful message and it is not a positive one.
And you are also surrendering control of the narrative because you can be sure the media will run your no comment response alongside interviews with people – possibly your competitors – who do have something to say.
So what should you say when you find yourself facing a question you really don’t want to answer?
Well, certainly you do not want to adopt the approach used by many politicians who have an increasing tendency to try to evade questions they don’t like by delivering a response which does not relate in any way to what they have just been asked. This is damaging in its own way and makes spokespeople appear shifty and untrustworthy.
To identify the best approach, we need to explore the different interview types.
In a print interview you can delay providing an answer to a question you are not confident about answering to a later point.
You could say something like ‘I don’t have the information to hand to answer that question right now, but I will get back you later’ or ‘I’m not the right person to answer that question, but I will get someone who can answer the question to contact you shortly’.
But this doesn’t really work when it comes to TV or radio interviews, particularly when they are live. Here the key is to acknowledge the question or succinctly cover why you can’t answer it and then try to steer the conversation, while still sounding helpful and cooperative, onto safer ground. This is achieved through a media training technique known as bridging.
Here are some examples of phrases you could use:
‘That’s an important question and one I will answer when we know more detail. What I can tell you now is….’
‘I appreciate there is some interest in that and it is something we want to get to the bottom of. What I can say now is…’
‘That’s not something I can answer right now, but what we do know is…’
‘That not something I can talk about now because we don’t have all the facts / there are ongoing legal proceedings / we’ve just launched an independent investigation…’
‘I wish I could help you with that, but it is not my area of expertise and I wouldn’t want to give you the wrong information. What I can tell you is…’
On our media training courses we tell delegates to then try and build on this by going on to give an example or by saying something which is new, relevant or unusual. So long as you are providing the journalist with good quality content that moves the story on, adds to the report or will entertain their audience then the journalist will cut you some slack.
Of course spokespeople do not always need to bridge in this situation. Sometimes a spokesperson will be much better served by being honest and admitting they don’t know the answer.
For example, while a spokesperson may feel embarrassed about admitting they don’t know an exact figure a reporter is asking for, this approach is much better than trying to dodge the question or speculate on what the answer might be. However, it’s important that spokespeople don’t just say ‘sorry I don’t know the answer to that’ and then say nothing else as short answers will give control to the journalist and mean you could face a barrage of questions you don’t want to answer.
How would you or your spokesperson handle a question they don’t want to answer? Let us know you thoughts in the comments box below.
Media First are media and communications training specialists with over 30 years of experience. We have a team of trainers, each with decades of experience working as journalists, presenters, communications coaches and media trainers.
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